The Mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuyiim

by | Oct 5, 2012 | Other News

D’var Torah delivered by Harry Graber, executive vice president, United Jewish Federation of Tidewater at the UJFT Annual Campaign kickoff

Tonight, we will speak to the Mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuyiim also known as the Redemption or Rescuing of the Captives. This will be done in honor of our subject matter the Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews or also known as Beta Israel. There are certain aspects of the history of Beta Israel that are unfortunately and not surprisingly familiar to many of us in the room despite most people’s declared ignorance of the topic. They are an ancient people who stood fast to their Judaism despite fierce anti-semitic attacks both physical and economic to separate them from their religion. They were once estimated to number 500,000 strong who went to the Gondar region to escape persecution and forced conversion. In 1624, they fought valiantly but unsuccessfully against Portuguese backed Ethiopians and to quote an eye witness account Beta Israel men and women fought to the death from the steep heights of their fortress. They threw themselves over the precipice or cut each other’s throat rather than be taken prisoner. However, not all avoided capture and not all were involved in the battle. Thus, this began centuries- long period of oppression in which they were referred to as Falshas or outsiders and when many captives were sold into slavery or forcibly baptized. Their lands were also confiscated and they were by law no longer allowed to own land. Their writings and books were burned, and the practice of any form of Jewish religion was forbidden in Ethiopia. Now, I assume that there are many heads nodding that this is indeed a familiar tale.

What has been and what continues to remain is our Jewish obligation to rescue the captive whether they be individuals or groups as large as Beta Israel, Soviet Jews or Jews trapped in the Holocaust. The mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuyiim is considered a great Mitzvah Rabbah, a category of mitzvot that transcends most other mitzvot because of its extreme importance. It transcends the mitzvah of tzeddakah and feeding the poor because as Maimonidies said that a captive is assumed to be poor, hungry, thirsty, ill clothed and in mortal danger. The Shulchan Aruch states that, every moment one delays in freeing captives, in cases where and when it is possible to expedite their freedom, is considered tantamount to murder. The failure to perform Pidyon Shivuyim violates many Torah laws as well such as ‘Do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your needy fellow or do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.”

However, despite the tremendous importance of performing the mitzvah the rabbis debated limitations that may be put on it. Basically, they asked when is the risk too high requiring abstention from the communal need to perform the Mitzvah. Is it when the cost is so high as to irreparably weaken the community, threaten its safety or bankrupt its treasury—which all run counter to Mipnei Tikkun Ha-olam. Others argue that when a captive’s life is in danger that the mitzvah of Pekuach Nefesh- commandment to save life trumps the limitations placed upon Pidyon Shvuyim.

These are the issues that are debated frequently in Israel and most recently regarding the issue of Gilad Shalit. Many asked will not the released and unrepentant terrorists once again kill and maim the members of our community, our country. The answers are not so clear even when they appear clear. In 1944, an Hungarian Jew named Rudolf Kastner who worked with the Budapest Aid and Rescue Committee negotiated with and bribed Adolf Eichmann to have a special train take approximately 1,700 Hungarian Jews to safety in Switzerland. Eichmann kept his end of the deal even as he was planning the deportation of over 450,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. Kastner emigrated to Israel after the war where in 1954 he was accused by an individual in a self-published newsletter to have collaborated with the Nazis by successfully negotiating with Eichmann to save the 1,700 which included his family and towns people and not doing enough to alert the larger Hungarian Jewish population of the danger of the deportations. The issue became a cause Celebre, the government sued on behalf of Kastner against his wishes for libel but the judge ruled against the government and Kastner saying, that Kastner had sold his soul to the devil in negotiating with Eichmann and only saving certain Jews and not alerting others. Kastner received death threats and two years after the decision was shot and killed. Nine months after his death the Supreme Court of Israel overturned the lower court’s decision stating that the judge had seriously erred.

Clearly, the mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuyiim is not a simple one to perform, despite the fact that the opportunity to perform it happens all too frequently in our people’s history. I would like to touch upon and close with a number of points for consideration.

The performance of all Mitzvot start with individuals and I posit the obvious which is that one is not borne understanding how to perform these mitzvot particularly one as important as Pidyon Shvuyim. They have to be taught about it, they have to have opportunities to frequently practice its principles, they must understand the inherent values and they must have role models to emulate. They must be supported, taught and challenged throughout their childhood and teen years to develop an understanding and consciousness to perform mitzvot especially mitzvot Rabbah such as Pidyon Shvuyiim and Pekuach Nefesh. Personal courage, integrity and commitment are hard won traits that must be practiced and tested.

They must live in a community that supports these values and mitzvot through its institutions, actions and activities. The community must work hard to create Jewish memories that become part of an intimate psychological legacy of pride and conviction. I was dismayed to encounter two young committed Jewish professionals who had studied aspects of Jewish history at two of the finest universities in our country and who knew nothing about the rescue of Ethiopian and Soviet Jewry. Our local educators must incorporate these events in their teaching. The rescue of approximately 2,000,000 Soviet Jews is probably the largest act of Pidyon Svuyiim in our history and we have allowed it fade into the dustbin of generational particularities. Why do our college students and young professionals know the story of Nelson Mandela and not Natan Sharansky. When we mention or even Google courageous Jewish women of the 20th century why do we include Hannah Sanesh and not Ida Nudel, Avital Sharansky, Elena Bonner or a heroine from Beta Israel? We must teach, celebrate and know our history because the qualities and actions we expect from our young people and our community do not spring out of thin air.

It is clear from the rabbinic literature and Talmud that that the performance of Pidyon Shvuyiim is primarily a communal responsibility. There are frequent references to a fund for such purposes that is required be established and regular contributions be made to it by the citizenry of the community. In our community, such a fund is the UJFT Annual campaign that supports surrogate organizations like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, ORT and the Jewish Agency for Israel who often secretly perform the mitzvah in our name. In fact, this year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the rescue by these organizations of Jews trapped in the siege of Sarajevo. During my career I participated in meetings hosted by Jewish Federations of North America and these organizations to discuss strategies if the need should arise to rescue the Jews of South Africa and Argentina. It is clear that one’s gift to the UJFT along with one’s commitment to Jewish learning, values and tikum olum provide the foundational cornerstone of a community prepared to perform the Mitzvah Rabbah of Pidyon Shvuyiim. Our campaign begins this evening and may we stay forever vigilant, strong and prepared.